Though motorbikes have replaced most of the horses, you can still get a taste of the old Mongolia of the nomads, writes Sisi Tang.
It is no longer about the armed warriors, Genghis Khan and the robed nomads prancing through lush greenery on horseback.
In China's barely populated Inner Mongolian grasslands, the things that had defined Mongolian culture for outsiders were swapped long ago for leather outfits, motorbikes, cell phones and tourism.
Five hours outside Inner Mongolia's south-eastern city of Chifeng and deep in the grasslands, I chanced upon a local couple riding a mule-pulled cart on a quiet road, heading toward their coal-heated yurt. The old woman said she loved watching drama shows on television, gesturing toward the dish propped up against her roof. On the highway nearby, cars and buses seemed the only other form of transport, horse-riding existing mostly for tourists.
The storybook nomadic life has dwindled, with most nomads now farming, living in compact brick huts, tending to tourists, or working in nearby cities. Desertification, too, is real and apparent, as you drive past yellowing grass where little livestock roams and sparse green shoots struggle through dried, gritty earth.
The few who have maintained a nomadic lifestyle camp on the grass only during the wetter months from June to September, making those the best times for travellers seeking an authentic glimpse of the old ways.
But though nomadic pastoral life is fading, echoes of it can still be found in some of the grasslands in southeastern Inner Mongolia. Windmills and nodding sunflowers dot endless expanses of rolling green fields, and there is not a clearer blue sky to be found in all China, although the view is occasionally interrupted by power lines or neon-yellow tour buses revving and honking relentlessly to prod the cows and sheep to the side.
I saw a lanky young nomad zip up a steep grassy hill on a motorcycle to herd his sheep. Like James Dean in his dark shades and black leather jacket, he leaned against the squeaking door of his yurt and let me and a travelling companion crouch inside.
With luck and patience, visitors may find a nomad farther inland who has room in his yurt to crash overnight. Real yurts are unfussy versions of tourist yurt accommodations, with dusty, unpretentious exteriors and claustrophobic interiors packed with dishes, pots, a bed, an odd chair or two, and small furry pets (like hamsters). Other elements of these simple Mongolian homes (places which match the low-key culture) might include a dangling light bulb, a communal spread for the bed, and simple kitschy decorations, along with the quiet cold.
Those staying in tourist accommodation miss out on an integral component of the grassland: cow dung. To get from the main road to a nomad's home, we selectively tiptoed over (and sometimes into) piles of cow dung, one of two main "banks", or income generators in Inner Mongolia (the other is wind power). Dried cow dung used to be the main source of fuel and heat for the chilly climate, and the amount of cow dung in a household is a measuring stick for diligence when it comes to a female candidate for marriage, as it demonstrates her ability to bring in fuel for the sake of her family.
The ubiquitous milk ads and sheer roadside cattle count point to beef and dairy production as agricultural mainstays. On arriving in Chifeng on the first day, we devoured a bowl of beef (meat, marrow, or joint) noodle soup. The small alley markets on Changqing Street offer a variety of fresh and pricey Mongolian beef jerky, sampled, weighed and wrapped on the spot. After sundown, the night market in Chifeng offers a smorgasbord of knick-knacks and necessities, from beef kebabs and toys to underwear and sheets, stretching many blocks. (Chifeng is the Chinese name for the city Mongolians call Ulanhad; both mean "Red Mountain", a reference to the mountain that abuts the city.)
Sensitive palates may not love the distinct gaminess of the local beef, some visitors may prefer Mongolian lamb, which is known for its excellent flavour. Some say it is the quality of the air and grass, while others point to the traditional slaughtering method. Considering the Mongols' emphasis on an animal's spirit, rather than slitting the throat and waiting for the animal to bleed to death, the nomad reaches inside the animal and snaps the spine, a technique said to kill the creature in 30 seconds. The meat comes out tender and flavourful enough that it needs no sauce or spice. Lamb-eating used to be a mark of aristocracy, unaffordable among ordinary nomads. The price of a fresh whole lamb is still hefty today, and nomads do not eat it very often.
Something else for visitors to experience in the region is the Arshihaty granite forest in the Hexigten Global Geopark. Temperatures plummet on the windy mountaintop, where chilly visitors will find vendors renting much-needed green military jackets reminiscent of the Red Army's Lenin coat. The Arshihaty boasts wide views of rocky green mountains and natural stone columns moulded by the wind into shapes of eagles, snakes, warriors, warrior's beds, turtles and castles, sure to inspire your imagination on the drive back.
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Trains from Beijing to Chifeng take six to 10 hours. The cheapest, slowest train costs about $16 (124 yuan). To go from Chifeng to the grasslands, most visitors hire a driver or join a tour. Drivers run about $26 a day.
A tourist yurt costs $6-$30 nightly, depending on the time of year. If you can find a real nomad to host you, the cost might be around $6-$13.